Navy carrier enthusiasts contend that the British would have lost the battle for the Falkland Islands in 1982 if the Argentines had been able to deploy a new kind of attack aircraft carrier that the Pentagon says the Soviets are building and are expected to have operational by 1990.
These same carrier champions warn that the new, 65,000-ton Soviet ships, two-thirds the size of U.S. super carriers but significantly larger than the Soviet helicopter carriers now at sea, will help Moscow influence events in the Third World and will stretch the American fleet by forcing it to follow Soviet battle groups to distant oceans.
Skeptics counter that the day of the carrier is over in this age of ocean surveillance satellites and sophisticated weapons, and that Pentagon leaders are making too much of two new Soviet carriers. The Soviets last month launched one of the angled-deck carriers, which is expected to be operational in four years, and have another under construction, according to the Pentagon. The carriers are designed to carry high-performance fighters and bombers, which cannot be handled by the type of carrier the Soviets now have deployed.
Enthusiasts and skeptics agree, however, that the addition of larger carriers with attack aircraft will give Soviet leaders a new tool for gunboat diplomacy, one the United States has employed for decades. The current example is the presence of two American carriers, the USS Coral Sea and the USS Saratoga, in the Mediterranean, partly in hopes of deterring Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from supporting or committing terrorist acts.
"British forces would have been forced to withdraw" from their battle with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982 if the Argentines would have had access to the kind of carrier the Soviets are now readying to deploy, according to retired rear admiral Clarence A. Hill Jr., a former skipper of the carrier USS Independence and now director of the governmental affairs office of the Association of Naval Aviation.
He was assuming the Soviet carrier would have carried the same type of planes now on U.S. carriers, including warning aircraft, fighters, bombers and tankers for in-flight refueling.
Hill said the short-range Harrier jump jets the British took to the Falklands on two carriers would be no match for the ones the Soviets could deploy on their new carriers.
Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. has said that Britain's lack of far-seeing warning aircraft such as those on U.S. carriers almost caused the British to lose the Falklands as it was. Argentine fighter bombers struck British ships repeatedly, but few of the bombs exploded.
In addition to changing the balance in Third World conflicts, Hill said, the new class of Soviet carrier is bound to stretch U.S. naval forces as they try to cover the Soviet ships' movements around the world. "It's obvious that the Soviets will use them to get us as far away from the Soviet heartland as they can," said Hill, a former Pentagon systems analyst, in assessing the significance of the two new carriers.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger also has a grim view of the carriers. He said last week that they will give the Soviets the "capability to engage in conflict and aggression much farther from their shores in a way that will challenge very severely our own naval strength. This is a significant added capability, without any question, and we should be realistic and recognize that."
Robert W. Komer, undersecretary of Defense for policy in the Carter administration, said that "the best thing that could happen would be for the Soviets to build a lot of aircraft carriers. The Navy demonstrated in World War II that it can sink carriers. And in peacetime we can keep tabs on them with B52 bombers and submarines . . . . I can't get excited about it."
Komer conceded that the carriers, once deployed, would extend Soviet influence but said the United States will be able to send more carriers than the Soviets to world trouble spots for the foreseeable future. President Reagan's proposed 600-ship Navy calls for 15 carriers. The Navy now has 13 deployable carriers.
The Navy said the Soviets launched the first of their two new carriers from Nikolyaev shipyard on the Black Sea early last month. The Navy said the carrier is about 1,000 feet long, "may be powered by a combined nuclear and steam propulsion system [and] is not expected to be operational for at least four years, at which time an air wing consisting of helicopters and vertical short takeoff and landing [V/STOL] aircraft is expected to embark."
The second carrier is being built at the same shipyard, the Navy said, with launch expected within three years. Officials said that U.S. satellites have photographed on the ground in the Soviet Union landing fields simulating a carrier deck, with launching and arresting gear apparently in place.
Navy officials predicted that over the next 10 years Soviet carrier forces will evolve from jump jets like the British Harrier to higher performance planes like U.S. F14 fighters, A6E bombers and E2C command and control aircraft.
It may take longer than 10 years, they said, because the Soviets will have to build aircraft strong enough to withstand carrier landings, train pilots in the art of carrier landings, and perfect catapults to launch planes and arresting gear to stop them as they drop down on the deck at speeds of up to 150 miles an hour.
U.S. Navy experience suggests that it takes years of practice to keep carrier planes from crashing during landing attempts on a bobbing flight deck. Navy figures for 1970 show that carrier planes experienced 63.3 major accidents for every 100,000 flying hours. That rate dropped to 12.13 in 1980 and 6.18 last year. Officials credit the sharp decline to the retention of experienced pilots.
One experienced Navy pilot noted the difficulties the Soviets are likely to face if they move from V/STOL aircraft, which land at slow speeds on a short stretch of deck, to conventional planes that must be caught at high speed at just the right second: "They're going to lose an awful lot of pilots learning how to do this thing."